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David Dobbs’ Social Life of Genes was racing past 6000 words when it screeched to a halt with an exhortation from Steve Cole. The message is that we had better be careful how we think, feel, and act because irreversible, life-altering change could result from the next move we make.
Readers who have been following Steve Cole’s work may recognize the connection to his recent article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
Unfortunately, as I showed in a recent blog post, these claims are based on psychometric malpractice and voodoo statistics.
Measures of these supposedly distinct strivings were essentially tapping statistically indistinguishable characteristics. Dobbs presents dramatic, even if highly selective examples of changes in gene expression from studies of the birds and the bees and fish.
The three hour movie stars Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, and involves the two discussing aesthetics, the meaning of life, postmodernism, science versus the supernatural, and Halloween on Long Island. Steve Cole’s conversation with Dobbs is rambling, but much more interesting than My Dinner with Andre. The article falls into some familiar traps with repeated attempts to enlist what are portrayed as scientific findings to strengthen messages from positive psychology.
David Dobbs and his sushi eating companion preach a reductionistic genomic expression ueber alles. Only by imposing artificial punctuation, can a sentence begin “Gene expression causes…” The endless, uninterrupted flow of the sequence is more accurately “…and then something prompts gene expression, the results of which can in turn be further amplified or dampened by…. Many readers come to the article with limited examples and a distorted understanding of genomic expression. The fish underwent massive surges in gene expression that immediately blinged up his pewter coloring with lurid red and blue streaks and, in a matter of hours, caused him to grow some 20 percent. A nerdy epidemiologist might have yawned: “Sure, so your measurement of social isolation is more confounded than my measure of stress. Community surveys of correlates of social isolation are observational studies, not experimental manipulations, and so any causal inference always involves some speculation.
Being socially isolated is associated with stress and deprivation, poverty, unemployment, recent losses such as divorce or bereavement, poorer adherence, restrictions in function due to health, delay in help seeking for acute and chronic health problems, etc. A 1988 Science article by Jim House, Kevin Landis, and Deb Umberson has been cited over 4000 times as showing that the evidence linking low social support and social isolation was as strong as the evidence that had first linked smoking to lung cancer. One of the more reasonable things that Cole admits to Dobbs: “Epidemiology won’t exactly lie to you. Cole led into his declaration by citing an earlier study in which he says showed that closeted HIV men succumbed to the virus much more readily. Something about feeling stressed or alone was gumming up the immune system—sometimes fatally. We instead developed a problem-solving intervention to improve adherence to HIV-medication. The nice thing about adherence was that we could establish its importance in observational and quas- experimental studies, quantify the likely effect size, and then manipulate adherence in a clinical trial. He found a broad, weird, strongly patterned gene-expression response that would become mighty familiar over the next few years. This passage conjures up Andrew Kaufman’s My Breakfast with Bassie, a spoof of My Dinner with Andre. Andy and Freddie say outrageous things, which eventually draw in some other people who challenge them. I’m glad I wasn’t there, because then he went on to discuss a study he did with my friends Greg Miller and Edith Chen, who are now at Northwestern University. Forget the problems of trying to compare such small samples and the need to ignore the many other ways in which these groups of children differ. To an extent that immunologists and psychologists rarely appreciate, we are architects of our own experience. All views that Professor Coyne expresses are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of PLOS or other institutional affiliations.
To make his point, he draws on a quote from Cole at the very end of my article — one that I think most readers will take as partially tongue-in-cheek — to insist that Cole wants us to believe gene expression changes you forever. Let me say that I have always followed the work of Steven Cole with great respect and interest, even where we have disagreed.

I was prepared to dismiss the problems I saw with this PNAS paper to Cole’s reliance on his co-authors for expertise concerning psychometrics. Then I stumbled upon David Dobbs’ Social Life of Genes and saw some of the same problems from work that Cole cited that did not involve collaboration with Barbara Fredrickson. Dobbs and Cole do indeed cite work with HIV AIDS patients and children with asthma living in adverse circumstances. This is the kind of ultra subjectivism and anti-materialist thought that so saturates positive psychology and its unrealistic proposal for social change that poor people need to build their characters and think more positively. In the weeks before and after Dobbs’ discussion of his sushi dinner with Cole, a number of scientific articles, news articles and blog posts appeared that attempt to explain parts of the complex self perpetuation of poverty. If today is so important, so is tomorrow, which might be able to reverse anything that happens today. His co-authors included Barbara Fredrickson, a psychologist professor, but also known as a rising positive psychology coach and author of the pop psychology advice book, Love 2.0. The authors’ not able to identify distinctive strivings, and so  they were prevented   from identifying distinctive profiles in genomic expression that go with them.
I tried to imagine the frenetic waving of chopsticks and splattering wasabi and soy sauce in the rapid fire conversation.
Namely, all of us need to assume a heightened sense of personal responsibility for how our circumstances affect us and for our health.
Their wealth affords them better circumstances and better chances for health and longevity. They neglect the rich context of linked biopsychosocial signaling systems in which gene expression occurs.
It was as if Jason Schwartzman, coming to work one day to learn the big office stud had quit, morphed into Arnold Schwarzenegger by close of business.
It borders on nonsense when it is put to use in the many correlates of social isolation to a matter of specific genomic or immunological mechanisms.
Social isolation is correlated with a lot of background characteristics that have identifiable associations with health themselves. You just cannot validly make sweeping statements like Cole does here and expect to remain credible. Yet, just a few years earlier, Jim House had  been unable to demonstrate the importance of social relationships for mortality among women in a large prospective community study. Then he showed that closeted men without HIV got cancer and various infectious diseases at higher rates than openly gay men did.
I imagine his voice suddenly booming his next statement, startling anyone else eating along the sushi bar into drop their chopsticks.
I would have had to flee the meeting in embarrassment if I have proposed harnessing  any of the mechanisms claimed by Cole. Comparing the intervention to routine care in a randomized trial, we found that we had succeeded in actually reducing viral loads.
Not as sexy as genomic expression or psychoneuroimmunological mechanisms, perhaps, but at least testable and in a way that our hypothesis could be disconfirmed.
Of roughly 22,000 genes in the human genome, the lonely and not-lonely groups showed sharply different gene-expression responses in 209. Otherwise, I would risk having to hear them talking this insensitive, classist positive psychology trash.
Coyne, PhD is Professor of Health Psychology at University Medical Center, Groningen, the Netherlands where he teaches scientific writing and critical thinking. Coyne is Emeritus Professor of Psychology in Psychiatry, where he was also Director of Behavioral Oncology, Abramson Cancer Center and Senior Fellow Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics.
I find it discouraging that a post ranting about bias, alleged cherrypicking, mirepresentation, and distortion should indulge in so much bias, cherrypicking, mirepresentation, and distortion. He’s speaking of a supposed contradiction residing in the fact that gene expression that changes you might actually change you back — as if I’m hiding the latter, or that Cole or I had suggested that such change is a one-way, irreversible process. Coyne fails to state that that quote comes only a few short paragraphs after a passage in which I note that Cole doesn’t see gene-expression changes as deterministic, but rather as reversible, and then quote Cole as saying just that. He manages to omit that much of the literature discussed is about people in extreme circumstances, ranging from people dying of AIDs to children in abusive homes and people living in poverty. The responses to the article on Twitter made it clear that many in this article saw for the first time something that Coyne complained was old hat: that gene expression is fluid, and that the genome is important not just as an architecture plan, but as an ongoing remodeling project.

However, first there was the serious distortion and bad science displayed in the Proceedings of the National Academy Of Sciences (PNAS), which I dissected elsewhere. We can’t be experts on all things and I presumed that his contribution of this paper was in the area of genomic expression. However, I don’t know where else the quote from Steve Cole with which Dobbs ends his long read the article could have come. Dobbs notably did not indicate the specific source of this or many of the instances in which Cole invokes his own work. But that makes all the more patronizing the subsequent references to such people being “architects of their own experience” with no mention of their being as in so many ways victims of their circumstances. Nowhere in the Dobbs-Cole conversation do I see appropriate references to how social environments can “fix” people who try to transcend their immediate adversity by changing their thinking.
These sources can at least in part provide an antidote to the classist insensitivity portrayed by Dobbs report of the discussions with Cole. They  ignored its scoring and factor analyses in picking items that they hoped would measure distinct strivings.
There are lots of complex, reciprocal feedback loops within which gene expression can be dampened or amplified, bypassed, or turned on or off by other processes. Dobbs and Cole want to shock and confront them with evidence that maybe social experiences can change blue eyes into brown. And we cannot really neatly separate stress from social isolation neat and cleanly, anyway. In the film, Kaufman who in real life mostly wrestled women,  goes to breakfast with Freddie Blassie, who is a  professional wrestler and now self-proclaimed King of Men. Cole reports selecting 16 poor and 15 well-off children who had asthma from a larger sample and running genomic expression analysis. If you feel like you’re alone even when you’re in a room filled with the people closest to you, you’re going to have problems. He is also Visiting Professor, Institute for Health, Health Care Policy & Aging Research, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.
He has served as External Scientific Advisor to a decade of European Commission funded community based programs to improve care for depression in the community. The contradiction exists only in Coyne’s mind, and in his insistence on misreading and misrepresenting the text he criticizes.
I think the findings relevant to both the struggling and the fortunate, and I hope that comes through clearly in the article, if not in Coyne’s read of it. As I continue to look carefully at this not always transparently reported paper, I saw that there were additional problems in capitalization on chance in the analyses of genomic expression that he should have caught. It is a sentiment that expresses well the theme of Cole’s paper with Fredrickson and her pop psychology writings and workshop descriptions as well. Overall, I think my assumption that it is tied to the PNAS paper is fair, but I would welcome a correction of from just where it comes. Sure, genomic expression is part of an interlocking system, but so is ideology, stigmatization, and punishment and suppression of deviant thought. Don’t you know that a GWAS requires hundreds more participants in order to obtain a robust, replicable findings? He has written over 350 articles and chapters, including systematic reviews of screening for distress and depression in medical settings and classic articles about stress and coping, couples research, and interpersonal aspects of depression.
They then popped their data into inappropriate multivariate analyses that were guaranteed to produce a particular pattern of results. He has been designated by ISI Web of Science as one of the most impactful psychologists and psychiatrists in the world.
He also blogs and is a regular contributor to the blog Science Based Medicine and to the PLOS One Blog, Mind the Brain.
He is known for giving lively, controversial lectures using scientific evidence to challenge assumptions about the optimal way of providing psychosocial care and care for depression to medical patients.

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